Reflections · Scholarship

Social History Writer’s Block

I’m trying to work through a number of issues for a paper draft today, and I am failing. I wrote a blog post a couple months ago about being pumped up about the Syracuse University archives and what I might be able to find there about SU’s disability history. Turns out, there is a lot of cool stuff.

Most of the material was from the SU Phi chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, a national service fraternity. In the very late 1960s, the SU brothers of APO became deeply invested in campus accessibility. Two perspectives likely prompted this: one national, one local. First, the Architectural Barriers Act was passed in 1968, prohibiting “architectural barriers” in all federal buildings. Second, one of the SU brothers was a wheelchair user, which prompted the fraternity to become more involved with making SU (and then campuses nationwide) more accessible to their students. The problem of architectural barriers is interesting because, as the policy states, it only affected federal buildings. For a private university like SU, then, the law had no real effect. The brothers distributed surveys to APO chapters at other campuses nationwide, surveying schools for the accessibility of their buildings, and eventually published a book, The Elimination of Architectural Barriers—a resource for identifying and eliminating inaccessible physical features on campuses. Hundreds of people (and organizations) wrote to the SU brothers for copies of the book as they tried to make their own campuses more accessible to students with disabilities.

The story of these fraternity brothers in the late 1960’s to mid-1970’s is fascinating. They rhetorically positioned themselves as accessibility “leaders” and disseminated information and resources nationwide. Seriously? That’s awesome.

It’s so awesome, in fact, that I don’t know how to do it justice. We’ve read so many great social histories this semester—Shirley Wilson Logan’s exploration of African American rhetorical education, Jacqueline Bacon’s work on abolitionist rhetoric, Catherine Hobbs’s edited collection of nineteenth-century women writers, and Carol Mattingly’s accounts of temperance women. All of these authors are so careful and complete with the claims they make and with the evidence they share. Yet their clarity leaves room for nuance. These authors all manage to let history speak on its own terms, an idea that we have returned to again and again as the semester progresses.

And I’m not sure how to do that. I’ve never tried to write anything that involves archival work, and I’m finding that it requires a different approach to researching and writing than what I’m used to. For every few sentences I write, I stop, re-read, fret, revise.

I think I’m going to grab an iced coffee and do what I tell my students to do: Write without worrying about how the words sound or how the ideas are organized. Write until you have your ideas out, then worry about all the other stuff: the organization, the eloquent wording, the nuance. Hopefully that works. If not, it may just be useful to remind myself that a first attempt at writing an abbreviated history will not (and cannot) be perfect. For that matter, no history, no matter how awesome (props to all you historians!) can be perfect. Whew…

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